Books About Books and Book Collecting
While the Internet serves its purpose, the book lover who is interested in becoming a collector will eventually be drawn to the source of his passion: a book. For as long as there have been book collectors there have been books about collecting, a stock that is added to each year as more collectors write books about collecting that are in turn collected by other collectors collecting books about book collecting. While some titles such as Dibdin’s Bibliomania or Rosenbach’s A Book Hunter’s Holiday have entered the realm of collectible works, others are available. The following works offer a good overview of the subject and are fairly easy to obtain.
CARTER, John. ABC for Book Collectors. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004. First published in 1952, this has become for many the Bible of book collecting (although there is another Bible for collectors of the Bible; see Darlow & Moule, below). With entries for “Deckle-Fetishism” and “Issue Mongers,” it’s clearly opinionated and often humorous, but also filled with invaluable information on book collecting terminology and practice. First-edition collectors with easily bruised feelings may want to skip the “Chronological Obsession” entry.
THOMAS, Alan G. Great Books and Book Collectors. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. A large-format book with almost 300 illustrations, including 40 color plates. This traces the development of books from the manuscripts of the medieval period to the growth of private presses in the 20th century, and profiles major collectors and their libraries.
PORTER, Catherine. Miller’s Collecting Books. London: Mitchell Beazley, 1998. Full of color illustrations and suggestions on how to get started in various areas of collecting, this is an excellent guide for both beginners and those more experienced in book collecting who wish to expand their areas of collecting.
BASBANES, Nicholas A. A Gentle Madness. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996. Intrigued by the tale of Stephen Blumberg who accumulated over 19 tons of stolen books, Basbanes explores the phenomena of “bibliomania” from the founding of the library at Alexandria to the present time.
REES-MOGG, William. How to Buy Rare Books. Oxford: Phaidon-Christie’s, 1988. Advice for the beginner from longtime British book dealer and collector William Rees-Mogg. Has a nicely illustrated section on printing and binding.
What To Collect?
Once you've become enthusiastic about book collecting in general, the next decision is what to collect. The following works can help you form a wish list for creating an extraordinary library. These books entertain while informing the reader about the influence of books throughout history.
CARTER, John and MUIR, Percy, editors. Printing and the Mind of Man. Munich: Karl Pressler, 1983. Second edition, revised and enlarged. “PMM” is based on the catalogue for a 1963 exhibition, perhaps the greatest gathering ever of printed works, encompassing 464 of the most influential works ever created, including 44 from the library of Bond author and bibliophile Ian Fleming. Assigning greatness is always arbitrary, but a PMM citation is as close to an official imprimatur as one will find.
OLMERT, Michael. The Smithsonian Book of Books. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1992. A lavishly illustrated work focussing largely on the history of printing but also featuring highlights of scientific and children’s book publishing. You’ll have to read to the end to figure out to what the chapter “Yes, We Have Now Bananas” refers.
KENT, Henry W. Bibliographical Notes on One Hundred Books Famous in English Literature. New York: Kraus Reprint Corporation, 1967. Better known as the “Grolier 100,” this group was originally gathered together for an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York in 1903, and ranges from a 1478 edition of Chaucer to John Greenleaf Whittier’s Snow-Bound, published in 1866. Some helpful bibliographical information is included with each work, as well as a short summary.
SEYMOUR-SMITH, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1998. Seymour-Smith can be entertainingly acerbic at times, but he is filled with admiration for the works that are “of fundamental influence,” a wide-ranging assemblage meant to illustrate “the history of thought from ancient times to today.”
CONNOLLY, Cyril. The Modern Movement. New York: Atheneum, 1996. Yet another list of 100 books, these the key books in defining the Modern Movement from 1880 to 1950, which “began as a revolt against the bourgeois in France, the Victorians in England, the puritanism and materialism of America.” From Henry James to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson series, the famed critic states his case for “books with outstanding originality and richness of texture and with the spark of rebellion alight, books which aspire to be works of art.”
These are some of the most frequently cited references in the field of rare and antiquarian books, so well known that they are generally referred to on a one-name basis such as “Sabin” or “Allibone.” While only an advanced collector would need these in his or her personal library, it is good to be familiar with them and know what they contain. Finding a work in one of these references is no guarantee of importance, but it is often one of the only sources for information on the work, and in the case of the collection catalogues (such as Streeter or Abbey), it is reassuring to know that the book you are seeking has been thought worthy of inclusion in one of the greatest libraries ever assembled. All of these works are among the most complete references in their fields, remarkable for the amount of information they contain and for the effort that went into completing them.
SABIN, Joseph. A Dictionary of Books relating to America, from its Discovery to the Present Time. Originally published in parts beginning in 1867. Contains over 100,000 works published in or about America, with a brief bibliographical entry and an indication of the libraries or personal collections where the work can be found. A remarkably comprehensive listing up to the date of publication. Sabin commented, “Had the magnitude and extreme difficulty of the undertaking been presented to my mind in full proportion at the outset, I should never have attempted it.”
HOWES, Wright. U.S.Iana. (1650-1950). Originally issued in 1954 and revised in 1962. A wide-ranging bibliographic work, but with a sharper focus than Sabin, limiting itself to works on “human activities” in the continental United States. Howes also dismisses some “common” or insignificant works: “No mature collector buys material in that category; and books unfit for purchase are surely unfit for admittance into a selective bibliography. An unweeded garden is close kin to a jungle!”
STREETER, Thomas Winthrop. The Celebrated Collection of Americana Formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter. A truly remarkable catalogue of the sale of Streeter’s collection by the Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1966, published in seven well-illustrated volumes plus an index. Over 4,000 items in all areas of Americana.
FIELD, Thomas W. An Essay Towards an Indian Bibliography. Published in 1873. A catalogue of Field’s library of over 1700 works on Native Americans, enhanced by the often opinionated coments attached to many items.
English Literature References:
ALLIBONE, S. Austin. A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors Living and Deceased From the Earliest Accounts to the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century. Born in Philadelphia in 1816, Allibone produced the first volume of this massive work in 1858 and the final one in 1870. It contains quotations, often lengthy, from critical judgments on over 46,000 authors, with forty classified indexes of subjects. The place to look if you wish to find a contemporary of Keats decrying his poetry as “incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language.”
POLLARD, A. W. and REDGRAVE, G. R. A Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland and of English Books Printed Abroad 1475-1640. First published in 1927. Popularly known as “STC,” this work was first compiled by Redgrave, an architect, engineer and art historian and Pollard, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, who warned all users that “it is a dangerous work for anyone to handle lazily.” Nevertheless, the bibliographic information contained is invaluable. A second edition, revised and enlarged, was issued between 1976 and 1991.
WING, Donald. Short-title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and British America and of English books Printed in Other Countries 1641-1700. Wing, a Yale librarian, eventually filled fifty-two shoeboxes with cataloguing information from Yale, as well as from various other libraries he had visited. (He was often locked in for the night while doing his research.) Copies of his findings were circulated to other major libraries, which added their holdings. The completed work was issued between 1945 and 1951, with a second revised edition issued in 1994.
LOWNDES, William Thomas. The Bibliographer’s Manual of English Literature. First published in 1834. Lowndes, the son and grandson of booksellers, began to compile this work in 1820. “Though the first systematic work of its kind in England, it brought Lowndes neither notice nor money. He passed the latter part of his life in drudgery and complete poverty” (DNB). Not as many contemporary critical citations as Allibone, but Lowndes’ observations are astute, and he gives more attention to the needs of collectors. Revised editions were issued in 1857 and 1864.
BATESON, F. W. The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. An offshoot of the great Cambridge History of English Literature, this Bibliography is conceived along the same lines as Lowndes, but it is both more accurate and more complete. A listing of major and minor English literary and semi-literary works, it has a confusing format but is exhaustive in its reach. Revised in the 1970s, it is currently undergoing a further revision.
American Literature References:
BRUCCOLI, Matthew J. and CLARK, C. E. Frazer, Jr. First Printings of American Authors. 1977. You have to love a reference work whose poetic preface states, “What springs mingle in the urge to collect books is as impossible to distinguish as what song the sirens sang.” Even better is the bibliographic material on hundreds of major American writers accompanied by reproductions of original dust jackets.
DARLOW, T. H. and MOULE, H. F. Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Originally published in 1903, this is the most complete listing of editions of the Bible. A revised and updated edition of the English-language section was published by A. S. Herbert in 1968.
COX, Edward Godfrey. A Reference Guide to the Literature of Travel. First printed in 1935, this work is also available in a 1969 reprint. “Convinced,” as he said, “that no man can ever be a bibliographer,” Cox set himself to what he saw as the less demanding task of listing “in chronological order, from the earliest date ascertainable down to and including the year 1800, all the books on foreign travels, voyages and descriptions printed in Great Britain.”
ABBEY, J. R. Travel in Aquatint and Lithography 1170-1860 from the Library of J. R. Abbey. First printed in 1956. A wonderful library catalogue of illustrated travel works from the collection of J. R. Abbey, the greatest English book collector of his time.
It has become common to refer to bibliographical works by their initials. Here are some abbreviations you’ll find in our descriptions:
BAL Bibliography of American Literature. First published in 1955, and focussing more on literature than on the historical material in Sabin or Evans.
BMC British Museum Catalogue.
CBEL Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (see above).
DAB Dictionary of American Biography.
DNB Dictionary of National Bibliography. The title refers to the United Kingdom.
DSB Dictionary of Scientific Biography.
NUC National Union Catalogue, listing the holdings of a large group of research libraries.
PMM Printing and the Mind of Man (see above).
STC Short title Catalogue of Books Printed in England, Scotland and Ireland (see above)